All things strange and beautiful
Et A unicorn's horn, the thigh bone of a giant and a tree root grown around a horse's jaw. All things strange and beautiful is the new exhibition opening at the Geological Museum, showing weird and wonderful objects and the stories which go with them, originally collected in Denmark's very first museum: the 17th century Museum Wormianum. The exhibition is based on the One Room installation, which is the renowned American artist Rosamond Purcell's interpretation of the old museum.
"With All things strange and beautiful we are presenting original objects from both the Museum Wormianum and The Royal Cabinet of Curiosities, but also lots of wonderful contemporary stories, theories and interpretations linked to the objects. For example, that lemmings are born in the clouds and fall down from the sky, that birds of paradise have no feet and spend their whole lives in the air, or that what we now know as narwhal tusks actually come from unicorns. 'All things strange and beautiful' is thus an exhibition which is not just about things but about people's fascination with and relationship to those things", says Hanne Strager, head of public outreach at the Danish Natural History Museum.
The Museum Wormianum was created by the physician Ole Worm in the early years of the 17th century and consisted mainly of a wide-ranging collection of natural specimens: stuffed animals, dried plants and rocks and minerals from all over the world. It wasn't just Denmark's first museum, but one of the first museums anywhere in the world. After Ole Worm's death, his collection passed to the king, Frederik III. He was also a keen collector and was the first Danish king to create a 'Kunstkammer', which was a related phenomenon of the times, but focusing rather more on artistic and ethnographic treasures. So Worm's natural history collection became part of the Royal 'Kunstkammer' or Cabinet of Curiosities.
After Worm's death, a book was also published which catalogued and described the objects in his collection. The frontispiece featured a unique and now famous copper-plate engraving of the museum. This illustration inspired American artist Rosamond Purcell to recreate Ole Worm's museum in her One Room installation, which is also part of All things strange and beautiful.
The famous engraving from the frontispiece of Ole Worm’s book Museum Wormianum, published in 1655. Ole Worm’s collections, combined with the Royal Cabinet go Curiosities of Frederik III, formed the basis of what would later become the Natural History Museum of Denmark.
At least 40 objects from Ole Worm’s collections have survived right down to the present day. One of the most talked about zoological specimens is still in the Natural History Museum - a horse’s jawbone with a tree root growing around it.
In the 17th century a number of new fruits were imported from the tropics to europe, and Ole Worm gives detailed descriptions of many of them in Museum Womianum. The pear-shaped object opposite is a bottle gourd, the fruit of the calabash tree. The museum has a gourd in its exhibitions which is though to be from Worm’r original collection.
Ole Worm was critical of many of the explanations and assumptions of his time. As early as 1638 he showed that what some traders marketed as unicorn horns were actually tusks of narwhals. Unicorn horns (or narwhal tusks) were highly prized in Worm’s time as gifts between princes and kings, as magical and healing powers were attributed to them.
The great auk on the right of the picture is a seabird which became extinct in the mid 19th century. The Natural History Museum owns two stuffed specimens. In Ole Worm’s time, the great auk was used by seafarers as a food resource and even as fuel. Ole Worm also kept a great auk as a pet in his university lodgings in 1650.
For thousands of years, small triangular objects found in stones and rocks have provoked fascination. One theory was that they were the petrified tongues of snakes or dragons, så they were called glossopetrae, or tongue-stones. They were reputed to be a fantastic remedy agains snake-bite. However, in 1667, the Danish natural historian Nicolaus Steno showed that they were actually the fossilised teeth of a large shark.
Ammon’s Horn. The fossilised wheels go ammonites resemble small ram’s horns. Since ancient times they had been known as Ammon’s horn, after the Egyptian god Ammon. Ammonites are extinct cephalopods which flourished 390 - 65 million years before the present. In Worm’s time, some people thought that ammonites were snakes turned to stone during the biblical Flood, while others held that they had been petrified by the interventions of saints.